Uzbekistan is a constitutional republic with a political system led by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and his supporters. In 2016 Mirziyoyev, the former prime minister, won the presidential elections with 88 percent of the vote. The Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) in Europe Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights noted in its final election observation report that “the campaign lacked competitiveness and voters were not presented with a genuine choice of political alternatives,” with the European observers citing “serious irregularities inconsistent with national legislation and OSCE commitments, including proxy voting and indications of ballot box stuffing.” Parliamentary elections took place in December 2019. The OSCE observer mission’s preliminary conclusions noted the elections occurred under improved legislation and with greater tolerance of independent voices but did not demonstrate genuine competition and full respect for election-day procedures.
The government authorizes four different entities to investigate criminal activity and provide security. The Ministry of Interior controls the police, who are responsible for law enforcement, maintenance of order, and the investigation of general crimes. It also investigates and disciplines its officers if they are accused of human rights violations. The National Guard ensures public order and security of diplomatic missions, radio and television broadcasting, and other state entities. The State Security Service, whose chairperson reports directly to the president, deals with national security and intelligence issues, including terrorism, corruption, organized crime, border control, and narcotics. The Prosecutor General’s Office ensures rule of law, protects the rights and freedoms of citizens and legally protected interests of the state, conducts preliminary investigations of crimes, and prosecutes persons and entities accused of crimes. Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control over the security forces, but security services permeated civilian structures. Civilian authorities opaquely interacted with security services’ personnel, making it difficult to define the scope and limits of civilian authority. There were reports that members of the security and law enforcement agencies, particularly police and prison officials, committed abuses.
Significant human rights issues included: reports of physical and psychological abuse of detainees by security forces, including abuses that resulted in the death of detainees; arbitrary arrest and incommunicado and prolonged detention; political prisoners; politically motivated reprisal against an individual located outside of the country; restrictions on freedom of speech, the press, and the internet, including censorship and intentional slowing of social media digital platforms; restrictions on assembly and association, including restrictions on civil society, with human rights activists, journalists, and others who criticized the government subject to harassment, prosecution, and detention; restrictions on religious freedom; restrictions on freedom of movement; restrictions on political participation in which citizens were unable to choose their government in free, fair, and periodic elections; human trafficking, including forced labor; criminalization of sexual relations between men; and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons and consensual same-sex sexual conduct.
Impunity remained pervasive. Government prosecutions of officials on abuse charges increased somewhat during the year.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. In January a man died as a result of beatings suffered while in detention at the Chirakchi District Ministry of the Interior branch office in the Kashkardarya Region, and on September 21, two officers who had been charged in the case received from four to nine years in prison. The first deputy chief of the police department resigned his position following the death.
In a separate case on May 30, press reported that Alijon Abdukarimov suffered critical wounds from the Andijan police while in detention on May 29 over charges of theft. After allegedly being beaten at a police station, Abdukarimov was taken to a hospital, where he died on June 11. The Prosecutor General’s Office launched an investigation into his case, leading to the June 13 arrest of six police officers. The Prosecutor’s Office subsequently filed charges against them, and an additional 19 law enforcement officers faced disciplinary measures. On November 27, the Andijan regional criminal court announced that the six police officers were sentenced from one to 10 years in prison.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
The country has laws governing the conduct of law enforcement officers and addressing torture, including language that states, “Employees of the Internal Affairs Ministry may not employ torture, violence, or other cruel or degrading treatments. The employee of the Internal Affairs Ministry is obliged to prevent intentional acts causing pain, physical, or moral suffering to the citizen.” The law bans the use of evidence obtained by torture in court proceedings. In addition, an antitorture law includes liability for the use of torture and other inhuman or degrading treatment. Prior to the adoption of the law, there were formal obstacles to the prosecution of persons involved in torture. These restrictions were eliminated.
During the year the UN Committee Against Torture concluded “that torture and ill-treatment continue to be routinely committed by, at the instigation of and with the consent of the State party’s law enforcement, investigative and prison officials, principally for the purpose of extracting confessions or information to be used in criminal proceedings.” In addition, a number of criminal trials during which defendants raised torture allegations, as well as several trials of persons charged with committing torture under Article 235 of the criminal code, including the 2018 trial of six National Security Service officers and others charged with torturing Ilhom and Rahim Ibodov, were closed to the public. Court decisions in those cases were not publicly available.
In September 2019 local officials in Khorezm detained blogger Nafosat “Shabnam” Ollashkurova after she criticized local government corruption on Facebook, including posts about illegal demolitions. Ollashkurova served 10 days of administrative detention, following which the Urgench District Civil Court ordered authorities to place her in the Khorezm regional psychiatric center for six months of evaluation and treatment against her will. Ollashkurova was released from the regional psychiatric center on December 28, 2019. In mid-January she reported authorities continued to harass her, claiming officials were visiting her apartment building and reminding family members her classification as a mental patient meant she could be detained without a court order at any time. Fearing for her safety, Ollashkurova fled the country on January 18 and sought political asylum in another country.
According to Forbes and other media sources, Farrukh Khidirov, a prisoner in penal colony #11 in the Navoi Region, died on June 27 after officials beat and burned him with boiling water. According to human rights activists, a few days before his death, Khidirov called home and said penal colony officials were demanding money from him. The officials provided him with their bank account information so that he could transfer funds. When they did not receive the money, they tortured him, human rights activists reported. Khidirov spent eight days in the hospital before succumbing to his injuries. After the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Ezgulik published accounts of his case, the Main Directorate of Corrections of the Ministry of Internal Affairs published a refutation in local online media. The message stated, “The body was examined by the Prosecutor’s Office, no bodily injuries were detected, and an appropriate examination was appointed regarding the incident. The redness that appeared on the video is a cadaveric stain and has nothing to do with bodily harm.”
In June a resident of the Surkhandarya Region told local media that “National Guard officers strangled me for not wearing a mask.” The officers allegedly approached him near his home and reported they had photographed him without a mask, which national directives required be worn in public at all times due to the COVID-19 state of emergency. One officer allegedly tried to force the victim into a police van, strangling him in the process.
On July 12, the Analytical Center for Central Asia and other media reported that police officers and National Guard officers beat a judge at a checkpoint by the entrance to the Jarkurgan District of the Surkhandarya Region. Following a traffic jam, police eventually closed the entrance to the city due to COVID-19 restrictions. The judge, who had been waiting in traffic for an hour to enter the city, spoke with the officers, who then pulled him from his vehicle and beat him, causing a concussion. On July 15, the General Prosecutor’s Office declared it had instituted criminal proceedings under Article 206 against employees who had worked at the checkpoint.
Media reported that on December 1 Zhanabay Ismayilov of Chimbay was severely beaten in the Karalkalpakstan Region–suffering cuts, bruises, and a broken arm–after two drunken Ministry of Interior officers assaulted him when he tried to get into their taxi, which he believed was free. Despite appeals by the victim’s family, at year’s end authorities had not opened a case against the two officers.
Prison conditions were in some circumstances harsh and life threatening due to food shortages, gross overcrowding, physical abuse, and inadequate sanitary conditions and medical care.
Physical Conditions: Reports of overcrowding, severe abuse, and shortages of medicine were common. On August 17, the government reported there were 22,867 prisoners in the penal system, held in 43 prisons and 11 pretrial detention facilities. Of the 43 prisons, 18 were “closed colonies” and 25 were open, “resettlement” colonies. According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the prison capacity was at 56 percent.
Officials generally provided inmates access to poor quality potable water and food. Visiting family members often brought provisions to detained family members. Upon release, political prisoners in the last two to three years reported to Human Rights Watch and others of being beaten and otherwise tortured, including being held in stress positions, while in prison.
According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, prisoners are entitled to outdoor exercise during nonworking hours, psychological treatment, and safe working conditions. In addition, prisoners are eligible for salaries and other work benefits. In the event of serious illness, prisoners can receive additional telephone privileges and family visits upon a physician’s advice. The rules also state that prisoners should undergo a medical examination upon request and at intervals of not more than six months. No information on implementation of these rules was publicly available.
Prison administration officials reported an active World Health Organization tuberculosis program in the prisons and an HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention program. International experts noted, however, that the rate of infectious diseases in prisons was not public knowledge and believed that the rates of tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS were very likely higher in prisons than in the general population. Poor compliance with treatment plans and other implementation issues undermined government efforts to lower infection rates.
Civil society activists raised concerns that prison officials were not adequately addressing COVID-19-related safety measures and specifically noted that older and medically compromised prisoners were at a higher infection risk due to lack of such measures.
On May 11, the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, along with the government-run NGO Yuksalish, announced it would begin conducting public monitoring in penal institutions to assess the level of protection against COVID-19. According to human rights activists, during the COVID quarantine and restrictive movement measures instituted in March, family members of prisoners stopped receiving mail, were restricted from visiting the prisons, and were denied telephone calls.
On May 22, the Cabinet of Ministers published a decree instructing the Ministry of Internal Affairs to publish information regarding the number of persons detained in penitentiary institutions and pretrial detention institutions; the number of penitentiaries and pretrial detention institutions; information on types of manufactured goods and monetary value of such goods produced in the penitentiary facilities; information on the number of deaths among persons detained in penitentiary institutions and pretrial detention facilities; and information on the number of convicts kept in penitentiary institutions that are subject to compulsory medical measures.
One human rights activist reported that prison administrators continued to charge current prisoners, often those convicted on religiously based charges, with new offenses, such as organizing criminal communities or participating in banned organizations. Such charges served as grounds for extending their prison terms. According to the law, prison officials are allowed to file new charges against prisoners resulting in new prison terms. Activists often referred to this as an “extension” of a term, but in reality it was a new sentence imposed on a current prisoner. For example, during the year 11 religious prisoners (each serving 20 year sentences) received an additional prison term of 10 years under this practice.
Administration: The Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office and the Prosecutor General’s Office may investigate complaints from detainees and the public. The Ombudsman’s Office may make recommendations on behalf of specific prisoners, including changes to the sentences of nonviolent offenders to make them more appropriate to the offense. Some family members of detained or released prisoners said the ombudsman did not respond to their complaints. On June 17, media reported that volunteers of the “Open Line Initiative” group held a protest to demand the resignation of the ombudsman. The protesters, family members of prisoners, contended that prisoners were routinely harassed, bullied, beaten, humiliated, and psychologically tortured by prison officials, including senior officials, and that the ombudsman routinely ignored family pleas for assistance.
Some human rights activists reported that lawyers had no problems meeting with their clients, although others disputed this, saying access was both limited and monitored.
Prison officials typically allowed family members to visit prisoners for up to four hours two to four times per year. Officials also permitted longer visits of one to three days two to four times per year, depending on the type of prison facility, as well as overnight stays. In March officials instituted COVID-19 restrictions on visitations. Authorities relocated some religious and political prisoners to housing in prison colonies rather than formal prisons. The colonies often allowed prisoners to come and go regularly and to have more family contact. Some prisoners were allowed to work and earn money inside or outside the colony.
The government stated that prisoners have the right to practice any religion, but some prisoners complained to family members that prison authorities did not permit them to observe religious rituals that conflicted with the prison’s schedule. Such rituals included traditional Islamic morning prayers. While some activists reported this situation has improved, others said the restriction continued. Authorities forbid all prisoners to observe religious holidays, such as Ramadan, with no fasting allowed. Although some prison libraries had copies of the Quran and the Bible, family members continued to complain that authorities did not allow all religious prisoners access to religious materials.
According to official government procedures, prisoners have the right to “participate in religious worship and family relations, such as marriage.” Close relatives also have the right to receive oral and written information from prison officials regarding the health and disciplinary records of their family members. Families continued to report that the government provided limited to no information or withheld information contained in health and prison records.
Independent Monitoring: Some independent observers had limited access to some parts of the penitentiary system, including pretrial detention facilities, women’s prisons, and prison settlements. Ezgulik, however, reported it had no problems accessing any prisoner. UNICEF regularly visited the country’s four juvenile offenders’ colonies. The International Committee for the Red Cross had not visited detainees since 2013.
The constitution and the law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. The government did not always observe these requirements.
By law a judge must review any decision to arrest accused individuals or suspects. Judges granted arrest warrants in most cases. Defendants have the right to legal counsel from the time of arrest. State-appointed attorneys are available for those who do not hire private counsel. Officials did not always respect the right to counsel and occasionally forced defendants to sign written statements declining the right. Authorities’ selective intimidation and disbarment of defense lawyers produced a chilling effect that also compromised political detainees’ access to legal counsel.
Some defense lawyers noted difficulty in accessing clients, the lack of private meeting spaces at law enforcement facilities to meet with detainees, and the lack of access to information about their client’s case.
The law authorizes the use of house arrest as a form of pretrial detention. The law allows detainees to request hearings before a judge to determine whether they should remain incarcerated or released before trial. Authorities often granted these hearings but typically granted detention requests from prosecutors, thereby undermining the spirit of judicial oversight. The arresting authority is required to notify a relative of a detainee of the detention and to question the detainee within 24 hours of arrest.
On April 1, compulsory procedures to protect detainees, including video recording of actions involving detainees and explanation of procedural rights to detainees, were introduced. The new procedures also stipulate that police are required to notify either family members or other designated persons regarding the arrest and location of a detainee within 24 hours. According to media reports and human rights activists, these protective measures had not been well implemented and reports of police abuse following detention were common.
Civil society reported that authorities physically abused or tortured suspects before notifying either family members or attorneys of their arrest in order to obtain a confession. In February the Ombudsman’s Office released its 2019 annual report, which noted that cameras in interrogation rooms at law enforcement facilities were frequently turned off or detainees were tortured and interrogated within camera blind spots. The report called for the creation of a special investigative committee to look into such cases. The ombudsman stated publicly on May 29 that 80 to 90 percent of the complaints of torture received by the office occurred at pretrial detention facilities rather than in the prison system.
On August 10, President Mirziyoyev signed a decree aimed at introducing mechanisms to eliminate the torture of detainees by ensuring the right of detainees to meet privately with defense lawyers upon arrest, ensuring the presence of defense lawyers during witness interrogation, outlawing the use of illegally obtained evidence; and introducing the use of plea agreements.
Suspects have the right to remain silent and must be informed of the right to counsel. Detention without formal charges is limited to 48 hours, although a prosecutor may request that a judge extend detention an additional 48 hours, after which the person must be charged or released. Judges typically grant such requests, and the judge who issues such an extension is often the same one that presides over the trial, which creates incentives to cover up violations. Authorities typically held suspects after the allowable period of detention, according to human rights advocates. After formal charges are filed, the prosecutor decides whether a suspect is released on bail (or on the guarantee of an individual or public organization acting as surety), stays in pretrial detention, or is kept under house arrest. The judge conducting the arrest hearing is allowed to sit on the panel of judges during the individual’s trial.
The law requires authorities at pretrial detention facilities to arrange a meeting between a detainee and a representative from the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office upon the detainee’s request. Officials allowed detainees in prison facilities to submit confidential complaints to the Ombudsman’s Office and the Prosecutor General’s Office.
Once authorities file charges, suspects may be held in pretrial detention for up to three months while investigations proceed. The law permits an extension of the investigation period for as much as seven months at the discretion of the appropriate court upon a motion by the relevant prosecutor, who may also release a prisoner on bond pending trial. Those arrested and charged with a crime may be released without bail until trial on the condition they provide assurance of “proper behavior” and that they would appear at trial.
A decree requires that all defense attorneys pass a comprehensive relicensing examination. In past years several experienced and knowledgeable defense lawyers who had represented human rights activists and independent journalists lost their licenses after taking the relicensing examination or because of letters from the bar association under the control of the Ministry of Justice claiming that they violated professional ethical norms.
The country had relatively few defense lawyers per capita, and activists said this likely was due to lower levels of pay, prestige, and influence in comparison to judges and prosecutors.
On November 30, the president signed a law that allows the National Guard, the Prosecutor General’s Office, and police the right to surveil electronically attorneys’ communications with clients. With the consent of the prosecutor or an investigator, officials (including prosecutors, investigators, and state bodies) can have access to conversations, messages, and other forms of information conveyed between a defendant and his or her lawyer by telephone and other telecommunications devices. Officials may also record these conversations. In some cases, authorities detained suspects and required them to sign a nondisclosure agreement that prevents them from discussing their case publicly. Human rights lawyers complained authorities used this tactic as a way to prevent lawyers and clients from receiving outside assistance or boosting publicity about their cases.
Arbitrary Arrest: Bloggers and activists were occasionally detained arbitrarily. In July local police illegally detained and interrogated journalists in Karakalpakstan without a court summons and seized their phones and laptops due to claims of “false” reporting about the health of a local government official. The Prosecutor General’s Office criticized the local police for what it termed “illegal acts.”
In contrast with previous years, religious groups reported that arbitrary detention of their members no longer occurred.
The government phased out the use of preventive watch lists, which contained the names of those convicted for religious crimes or crimes against the regime. In 2019 Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov announced that since 2016, authorities removed more than 20,000 prisoners convicted on religious grounds from the watch list. It was unknown how many individuals remained on the watch list. Previously, authorities compelled named individuals on the watch list to submit to police for interrogation, denied issuance of passports and travel visas, and in some cases, prohibited the purchase and use of smartphones.
The law provides for a commission to review the prison profiles of convicts sentenced on charges of religious extremism. On August 26, the Ministry of Interior press service released a video announcing that some prisoners would be pardoned or released in honor of Independence Day. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted that a large number of the pardons included those convicted on “religious extremism” charges. The video and accompanying press declared the government had released or pardoned 4,500 prisoners since the death of former president Karimov in 2016, including 1,584 religious prisoners (of these, 1,215 were released and 369 received reduced sentences). On August 27, in advance of the country’s Independence Day, an additional 113 prisoners received pardons, including 105 religious prisoners. On December 7, to mark Constitution Day, the government released 104 prisoners, including 21 religious prisoners, bringing the total number of religious prisoners released since 2016 to 1,710. Another commission reviews the petitions of persons “who mistakenly became members of banned organizations.” While the commission has the power to exonerate citizens from all criminal liability, observers reported it did not exercise this power in the majority of cases the commission reviewed.
Pretrial Detention: Prosecutors generally exercised discretion regarding most aspects of criminal procedures, including pretrial detention. Authorities did not provide access to detainees to a court to challenge the length or validity of pretrial detention, despite the law granting detainees the right to do so. Even when authorities did not file charges, police and prosecutors frequently sought to evade restrictions on the length of time that persons could be held without charges by holding them as witnesses rather than as suspects. The Ministry of the Interior, which oversees the prison system, did not provide information regarding the number of persons held in pretrial detention centers or allow access to independent organizations.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: By law detainees or former detainees are able to challenge the lawfulness of their detention before a court. Appeals were sometimes open to the public by request of the applicant. New evidence was rarely heard. Appeal courts generally reviewed previous trial records and asked applicants to declare for the record their innocence or guilt. Appeals rarely resulted in the courts overturning their original decisions.
The constitution provides for a judiciary; however, the judiciary does not operate with complete independence and impartiality. The Prosecutor General’s Office and other law enforcement bodies occasionally exerted inappropriate pressure on members of the judiciary to render desired verdicts. Regardless of the length of their term, judges can still be arbitrarily dismissed by the Supreme Judicial Council, making them vulnerable to political pressure.
Judges are appointed by the Supreme Judicial Council, subject to concurrence by the Senate. According to the law, lifetime appointments are possible under certain circumstances. The law states, “A judge shall be appointed or elected in accordance with the established procedure for an initial five-year term, a regular 10-year term, and a subsequent indefinite period of tenure.” Regardless of the term of appointment, the Supreme Judicial Council may dismiss judges. On August 20, the council invited media representatives to a first-ever meeting during which council members discussed the appointment of 19 new judges.
The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, but in practice this was not always the case. The criminal code specifies a presumption of innocence. Judicial authorities officially opened most trials to the public and generally permitted international observers at proceedings, but judges or other officials arbitrarily closed some proceedings to observers, even in civil cases. Judges may close trials in exceptional cases, such as those involving state secrets or to protect victims and witnesses. Authorities generally announce trials only one or two days before they begin, and they frequently postponed hearings.
A panel of one professional judge and two lay assessors, selected by committees of worker collectives or neighborhood committees, generally presided over trials. Lay assessors rarely speak. The professional judge usually accepts the prosecutors’ recommendations on procedural rulings and sentencing.
Defendants have the right to attend court proceedings, confront witnesses, and present evidence, but judges often declined defense motions to summon additional witnesses or to enter evidence supporting the defendant into the record.
While the overwhelming majority of criminal cases brought to trial resulted in guilty verdicts, the number of acquittals has risen. According to the Supreme Court’s website, the number of acquittals increased from six in 2016, to 263 in 2017, to 867 in 2018, and to 859 in 2019 (compared to 27,603 convictions in 2019).
Following his September 2019 visit to the country, UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers Diego Garcia-Sayan highlighted the 2019 creation of the Supreme Judicial Council, the increase in acquittals, and the establishment of a process to improve the public’s access to court rulings, as key steps toward promoting judiciary independence in the country. His formal report, issued in June, noted that corruption remained a concern and a number of forms of interferences continued to undermine both the independence of the judiciary from other branches of government (affecting institutional independence) and the independence of individual judges to adjudicate the cases before them impartially and autonomously (affecting personal independence). The report noted that “prosecutors retain a prominent role in criminal proceedings, and the proceedings for the appointment and dismissal of the prosecutor general do not provide sufficient guarantees to prevent undue political influence from the legislative and executive branches of power, raising considerable concerns as to the institutional independence of the whole prosecution service.”
The UN special rapporteur’s report also noted that, “the shortage of lawyers severely affects access to justice, especially outside of Tashkent, and lawyers continue to encounter several obstacles in obtaining access to clients, in particular during pretrial detention.” It stated that some lawyers, for example, those defending persons who charged with terrorist offenses or who are political prisoners, reported harassment and illegal searches prior to meetings with clients in detention facilities. Further, it stated lawyers also experienced a lack of access to information, files, and documents in the possession of government authorities. The report found that lawyers were frequently denied access to case files prior to indictments or were prevented from summoning or cross-examining witnesses. In cases involving state security, lawyers did not have access to the indictment or the final ruling. The report concluded that this constituted a serious violation of the principle of equality of arms, since defendants were de facto deprived of any effective legal assistance.
The government provided legal counsel and interpreters without charge when necessary. According to credible reports, state-appointed defense attorneys routinely acted in the interest of the government rather than of their clients because of their reliance on the state for a livelihood and fear of possible recrimination.
In 2019 the Ministry of Justice registered the nongovernmental, nonprofit organization Madad, whose purpose is to help increase legal awareness and provide free legal advice and practical legal assistance, including through the operation of an online portal Advice.uz (e-maslahat.uz).
By law a prosecutor must request an arrest order from a court, and courts rarely denied such requests. Prosecutors have considerable power after obtaining an arrest order. They direct investigations, prepare criminal cases, recommend sentences to judges, and may appeal court decisions, including sentences. After formal charges are filed, the prosecutor decides whether a suspect is released on bail, stays in pretrial detention, or is kept under house arrest. Although the criminal code specifies a presumption of innocence, a prosecutor’s recommendations generally prevail. If a judge’s sentence does not correspond with the prosecutor’s recommendation, the prosecutor may appeal the sentence to a higher court. Judges often based their verdicts solely on confessions and witness testimony that authorities in some cases allegedly extracted through abuse, threats to family members, or other means of coercion. Authorities commonly used these practices in religious extremism cases in particular. Both defense lawyers and prosecutors may call on judges to reject confessions and investigate claims of torture.
The government continued to broadcast live coverage of court hearings when both parties consent, limiting such broadcasts to minor cases typically involving administrative offenses or economic cases. Despite the Supreme Court’s efforts to publish its rulings on its website, lower-level courts generally did not publish their rulings, making it difficult for defense lawyers to build arguments based on legal precedent.
The law provides a right of appeal to defendants, but appeals rarely resulted in reversal of convictions. In some cases, appeals resulted in reduced or suspended sentences.
In August the government released four high-profile prisoners. Three of these (Rustam Abdumannopov, Iskandar Khudaiberganov, and Akrom Malikov) were considered by Tashkent-based human rights organization Ezgulik and other domestic human rights activists to be the only three remaining political prisoners in the country. The fourth prisoner released was Rukhitdin Fakhrutdinov, a well known religious prisoner. It was unknown how many other religious prisoners remained in custody.
In years past the government targeted peaceful political dissidents and convicted them of engaging in terrorist and extremist activities or for belonging to what the government called religious fundamentalist organizations. NGO representatives stated they could not independently verify the numbers of such individuals who remained in detention. There were no reports of such detentions during the year.
Authorities sometimes did not provide political prisoners and detainees the same protections as other detainees, including by holding some incommunicado for prolonged periods of time, limiting their access to lawyers of their choosing, and psychologically intimidating some of them. The government sometimes did not permit access to such persons by human rights or humanitarian organizations, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross.
According to numerous former political prisoners, the government provides released prisoners with an allowance upon parole to help them reintegrate into society, although some reported not receiving all promised benefits. Such allowances include travel expenses to one’s place of residence, health benefits, and the issuance of an internal passport, which is the primary form of identification in the country. Upon release, convicts sign a document acknowledging they understand the terms of their parole. This document typically includes a prohibition on travel abroad for up to one year. In years past, several former prisoners reported that authorities levied a fine against them as a condition of their parole. Failure to abide by the terms of payment may result in the termination of parole. One former prisoner, for example, was reportedly required to pay 20 percent of his monthly salary to the government for 18 months following his release.
In 2019 high-level government officials periodically visited different regions of the country to conduct outreach to vulnerable social groups, such as former prisoners, and the government said it maintained this policy. COVID-19-related movement restrictions and strict quarantine protocols issued throughout the country likely affected the ability of officials to conduct such visits. In years past, former prisoners expressed concerns regarding the difficulty of placing children into kindergartens, obtaining assistance in securing housing, and receiving medical treatment, as well as concerns over their parole terms.
Some former political prisoners pointed out that they were still considered criminals because authorities did not fully exonerate them upon their release from prison. Three former political prisoners, including Azam Farmonov, whom authorities released in 2017 after serving 11 years of a 13-year sentence, attempted to register an NGO named Restoration of Justice three times in 2019, without success. On March 9, the Ministry of Justice registered the NGO under a new name, Hoquqiy Tayanc (Legal Pillar); the NGO sought redress for the unlawful detention of political prisoners, including clearing their records through exoneration, expungement, or other means.
Amnesty: Authorities annually grant amnesty and release individuals imprisoned for religious extremism or other crimes. In five separate instances during the year, President Mirziyoyev released or reduced the sentences of 243 prisoners detained on religious extremism or other grounds.
Kyrgyzstan authorities extradited journalist Bobomurod Abdullayev to Tashkent on August 9 at the request of Uzbekistan authorities. The Uzbekistan government charged the journalist on two counts of crimes against the government, reportedly based on accusations that he had published allegations of corruption against Uzbekistan officials. After Abdullayev signed a nondisclosure agreement, he was released, and the charges were eventually dropped (see section 2.a.).
Citizens may file suit in civil courts for alleged human rights violations by officials, excluding investigators, prosecutors, and judges. Civil society reported in the past that bribes accepted by judges influenced their court decisions in these cases.
Government urban renewal campaigns to demolish older, Soviet-era apartment blocks and private homes in both Tashkent and other regions continued to displace citizens from their homes or businesses, often without due process. On February 14, a fight broke out between police and residents of a village in the southern region of Surkhondaryo due to news this campaign would demolish their homes. Also in February, a woman was severely burned in Qarshi after she set herself on fire in front of the regional prosecutor’s office to protest the illegal demolition of her home. On August 28, more than 100 residents in a Tashkent neighborhood began protesting the demolition of their private garages where a builder planned to construct an apartment building. The residents had been fighting the planned construction for months.
Although the constitution and law forbid arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy, family, home, or correspondence, authorities did not respect these prohibitions. The law requires that prosecutors approve requests for search warrants for electronic surveillance, but there is no provision for judicial review of such warrants.
On August 6, unknown assailants simultaneously hacked the Telegram accounts (a popular social messaging app) of several bloggers and journalists, including the owners of Telegram channels https://t.me/nobody_cares_but (10,000 subscribers) https://t.me/insider_uz (7,000 subscribers), https://t.me/kurbanoffnet (7,000 subscribers), and journalists Zafarbek Solizhonov and Anora Sodikova. Bloggers and journalists later posted online their belief that the aim was not only to attack freedom of speech but also to obtain personal information that could later be used against them. “We know that this attack was aimed at specific individuals, so it can be said that the main target was not money,” wrote journalist and blogger Eldar Asanov on his Telegram channel (8,000 subscribers).
The government adopted a unified statute addressing matters related to personal data protection and processing in 2019. Previously, numerous laws and resolutions regulated the government’s protection of and processing procedures for individuals’ personal data, which complicated compliance requirements. This law was the country’s first attempt to unify personal data regulations in line with international standards.
There were no reports of raids of the homes of religious groups’ members and unregistered congregations.
The government continued to use an estimated 12,000 mahalla (neighborhood) committees as a source of information on potential “extremists.” The committees provide various social support functions, including the distribution of social welfare assistance to the elderly, single parents, or families with many children; intervention in cases of domestic violence; and adjudication of disputes between residents, but they also serve as a way to feed information about local community members to the government and law enforcement entities. Mahallas in rural areas tended to be more influential than those in cities.
In February, President Mirziyoyev issued a decree that established the Ministry for the Support of the Mahalla and the Family. The new ministry is tasked with ensuring close cooperation between the state level government and the local mahallas on issues of women, family, and social structures.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: In 2019 President Mirziyoyev signed a domestic violence law that provides a legal definition of sexual, physical, economic, and psychological violence against women as well as defines the rights of victims of harassment and violence. It also set up an interagency framework of responsibilities, including governmental entities such as the Cabinet of Ministries, Ministries of Internal Affairs and Employment and Labor Relations, local government bodies, the mahalla committee network, and NGOs working in the area of protecting women from domestic violence. Nonetheless, the criminal and administrative codes did not yet include adequate provisions regarding punishment. Protection orders can be issued, but activists said they were of little use to the victim. One activist stated, “When issuing protection orders, ‘preventive talks’ are held and the victim is reconciled with the offender. It turns out that the protection orders help criminals to avoid the liability they should incur in the event of domestic violence.”
On May 31 in Fergana, a 22-year-old man severely beat and hospitalized a 17-year-old girl named Evelina after she ignored his advances. The story was highlighted in social media when the victim published her story on Facebook. The day after Evelina went public, the Investigative Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs publicly commented that it had just opened a criminal case to investigate the allegations, even though the assault had taken place two weeks earlier. Two days after the ministry’s comments, Evelina reported that she had signed a “peace agreement” with the assailant, which activists believed she was forced to do.
Cultural norms discouraged women and their families from speaking openly regarding rape. On March 27, journalist and founder of an independent project seeking to combat domestic violence in the country nemolchi.uz (Do Not Be Silent) Irina Matvienko received a notification from the Agency of Information and Mass Communications (AIMC) stating that “the content of her website does not meet the national mentality of Uzbekistan and can negatively affect the spiritual and educational mindset of the nation, especially young people.” The AIMC informed Matvienko that as the project’s administrator, she had violated a number of laws, such as the Law on State Youth Policy, the Law on the Protection of Children from the Information Harmful to their Health, and the Law on the Spread of Information. The AIMC specifically highlighted an anonymously published story about domestic violence that mentions rape. The case received attention from journalists and human rights groups. The AIMC then revoked the violation notification on April 14 following the intervention of the Public Fund for Support and Development of National Mass Media, an organization founded by the eldest daughter of President Mirziyoyev.
There were government-run and some NGO-run shelters for victims of domestic abuse and telephone hotlines for victims seeking assistance. Victims of domestic violence may be sheltered in Centers for Rehabilitation and Adaptation. According to the Ministry of Mahalla and Family Affairs, the hotline received 50 to 60 calls per day on average. Women in the shelters were provided with food, medicines, and hygiene products at the expense of the ministry as well as at the expense of the Public Fund under parliament.
In April the Commission on Gender Equality of Uzbekistan, together with the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Center for Support of Civil Initiatives, launched a telephone hotline service during the COVID-19 quarantine period. The aim of the hotline is to protect women’s rights and prevent harassment and violence against them.
In May the government launched a “No to Violence” Telegram channel, reaching 4,000 subscribers. The Ministry of Internal Affairs announced that between May 11 and May 18, there was an increase of new cases, received calls, and protection orders issued.
The COVID-19 lockdown increased the number of complaints of domestic violence. According to Jizzakh-based NGO Center of Rehabilitation and Adaptation of the Victims of Domestic Violence, from January to November it received three times more complaints than in 2019, which it attributed to the lockdown.
Other Harmful Traditional Practices: Polygamy is unofficially practiced in some parts of the country. The law punishes conviction of polygamy with up to three years of imprisonment and fines but does not penalize the women in such cases. The law does not confer the same rights, including property, inheritance, or child custody rights, to women in unregistered polygamous marriages as it does to those in registered marriages, making women in unregistered polygamous marriages particularly vulnerable to abuse and deprivation of rights when the spouse dies or ends the relationship.
Sexual Harassment: The law does not explicitly prohibit sexual harassment, but it is illegal for a male supervisor to coerce a woman who has a business or financial dependency into a sexual relationship. Social norms, lack of reporting, and lack of legal recourse made it difficult to assess the scope of the problem. Government efforts to enforce the law and prevent sexual harassment were unknown.
Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals generally have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children. Individuals have the right to manage their reproductive health and had access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, and violence. Unlike in years past, there were no reports that government doctors pressured women to accept birth control or employ medical measures, such as sterilization, to end the possibility of pregnancy.
The law regulates reproductive health procedures permitting voluntary and informed consent for sterilization of an adult. Citizens had access to voluntary family planning, including the ability to choose methods of contraception. Women have the legal right to receive medical assistance for individual selection of contraceptive methods, based on their medical condition, age, and individual characteristics.
In February the Ministry of Health approved procedures for in-vitro fertilization.
Contraception was generally available to men and women. In most districts, maternity clinics were available and staffed by fully trained doctors who provided a wide range of prenatal and postpartum care. Activists working on women’s issues reported that in most cases births were attended by skilled medical personnel.
The government provided medical attention to women who reported sexual violence, although activists reported the topic remained taboo and there were no official statistics on the number of cases.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.
Discrimination: In 2019 the president signed a law on gender equality, a first for the country. The law provides for equal opportunities in the area of health care, education, science, culture, labor, and social protection.
In 2019 the government lifted the ban on female workers in heavy industries and professions, such as mining, oil and gas enterprises, and construction, as part of a presidential decree on strengthening the guarantees of women’s labor rights. The government provided little data that could be used to determine whether women experienced discrimination in access to employment or were paid less for similar work.
Birth Registration: Citizenship is derived by birth within the country’s territory or from one’s parents. The government generally registered all births immediately.
Medical Care: While the government provided equal subsidized health care for boys and girls, those without an officially registered address, such as street children and children of migrant workers, did not have regular access to government health facilities.
Child Abuse: Legal protections against child abuse exist. Society generally considered child abuse to be an internal family matter. Little official information was available on the subject, including on the government’s efforts to combat it.
Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: In 2019 the government raised the minimum legal age for marriage of women from 17 to 18, making the age of marriage equal for both sexes. District authorities may lower the age by one year in exceptional cases. In some rural areas, girls 15 years of age or younger married men in religious ceremonies not officially recognized by the state.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law seeks to protect children from “all forms of exploitation.” Conviction of involving a child in prostitution is punishable by a monetary fine and imprisonment for up to five years.
The minimum age for consensual sex is 16. The punishment for conviction for statutory rape is 15 to 20 years’ imprisonment. Conviction for the production, exhibition, and distribution of child pornography is punishable by a fine or by imprisonment for three to five years.
Institutionalized Children: According to UNICEF, more than 20,000 children with disabilities resided in institutions. Children placed in residential care for educational purposes were overrepresented in these institutions. The most recent reports from the State Statistics Agency, published in 2017, indicated that 84 percent of all children placed in residential care were children with disabilities, with children between the ages of seven and 17 representing the largest group.
International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.
There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts or patterns of discrimination against Jews. There were eight registered Jewish congregations. Observers estimated the Jewish population at fewer than 10,000, concentrated mostly in Tashkent, Samarkand, the Fergana Valley, and Bukhara. Their numbers continued to decline due to emigration, largely for economic reasons.
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
The law prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities, but societal discrimination based on disability occurred.
The law allows for fines if buildings, including private shops and restaurants, are not accessible, although no information was available concerning the imposition of fines. Disability activists reported accessibility remained inadequate, noting, for example, that many of the high schools constructed in recent years had exterior ramps but no interior modifications to facilitate access by wheelchair users.
On October 16, President Mirziyoyev signed a new law on the rights of persons with disabilities. The law is based on international standards and the requirements of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Among other provisions, it introduced the term “person with disability” instead of “disabled” and “invalid.” It provides improved benefits for persons with disabilities, including a reduction in the time frame for consideration of a disability application from three months to 10 days.
The Ministry of Health controlled access to health care for persons with disabilities, and the Ministry of Employment and Labor Relations facilitated employment of persons with disabilities. No information was available regarding patterns of abuse in educational and mental health facilities.
The law obliges public institutions and private enterprises, where at least 20 individuals are employed, to reserve at least 3 percent of jobs for persons with disabilities. Activists reported this law was rarely implemented or enforced. Activists noted the amounts of disability benefits and pensions were inadequate to the needs of socially vulnerable families due to the lack of an officially established minimum subsistence level.
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the environment for persons with disabilities, as the cessation of public and private transport during the initial lockdown created food security issues for children and adults with disabilities. Persons with disabilities therefore relied on episodic food assistance provided by mahalla committees.
Disability rights activists reported that discrimination occurred and estimated that approximately 8,500 adults with disabilities (of more than 631,000 between the ages of 16 and 60) were employed and approximately 75 percent lived below the poverty line. The city of Tashkent set aside 2,500 housing units for persons with disabilities. The government mandates that social infrastructure sites, urban and residential areas, airports, railway stations, and other facilities must provide for access to persons with disabilities, although there were no specific government programs implemented and activists reported particular difficulties with access.
Students who were blind or with vision disabilities sometimes studied dated braille books published during Soviet times, but there were some computers adapted for persons with vision disabilities, and some newer braille books were donated to schools. The number of persons with disabilities significantly increased in institutions of higher learning as the result of a government quota system. In 2017 only 50 persons with disabilities were accepted to higher education. In 2019 the number was 1,659, which increased to 2,200 by the end of the year.
Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups
The law does not require Uzbek language ability to obtain citizenship, but language often was a sensitive issue. Uzbek is the state language, and the constitution requires that the president speak it. The law also provides that Russian is “the language of interethnic communication.”
Officials reportedly reserved senior positions in the government bureaucracy and business for ethnic Uzbeks, although there were numerous exceptions.
Complaints of societal violence or discrimination against members of ethnic minority groups were rare.
Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
Article 120 of the criminal code criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual conduct between men, which is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment if convicted of this crime. The law does not criminalize consensual same-sex sexual conduct between women.
Society generally considered same-sex sexual conduct as a taboo subject. There were no known lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) organizations. Deeply negative social attitudes related to sexual orientation and gender identity limited the freedom of expression of the LGBTI community and led to discrimination. The law does not prohibit discrimination against LGBTI persons in housing, employment, nationality laws, and access to government services, such as health care.
Following the country’s Universal Periodic Review in 2018, the government rejected recommendations related to decriminalization of LGBTI status and called LGBTI issues “irrelevant to Uzbek society.”
LGBTI activists report continued harassment from police, which are rumored to use LGBTI persons to entrap others in blackmail schemes. On November 24, media reported that authorities arrested an assistant to the Supreme Court Chair on charges of homosexual relations. According to reports, the assistant had been in a long-term relationship with a partner who extorted $17,000 from him to keep the relationship secret. When the assistant refused to keep paying, the partner leaked videos he had filmed of the two having sex. One media outlet wrote that this was not the first case of homosexual relationships in the public sphere, asserting there were officials who were not openly gay in almost all ministries, including the security services.
The law protects those infected with HIV from discrimination and provides for free health care. As of 2019 UNAIDS estimated 50,000 individuals were living with HIV, including up to 6,000 children younger than age 14. Coverage of HIV-infected adults with antiretroviral therapy was 58 percent, while coverage of children was 91 percent. Persons known to be HIV-positive reported social isolation and discrimination by public agency workers, health personnel, law enforcement officers, landlords, and employers after their HIV status became known. The military summarily expelled recruits in the armed services found to be HIV-positive. Some LGBTI community activists reported that hospital wards reviewed the personal history of HIV-infected patients and categorized them as drug addicts, homosexuals, or engaged in prostitution. Hospital officials reportedly sometimes marked HIV-infected patients’ files as “homosexual” and referred them to police for investigation, because consensual same-sex sexual conduct between men is a criminal act.
On November 1, the director of the Republican AIDS Center reported there were 78 HIV diagnostic laboratories in the country, including 15 laboratory facilities at AIDS centers and 63 interdistrict laboratories. The state allocated more than eight billion soum ($766,000) annually to provide the laboratories with test systems and reagents.